Homily of Bishop Kevin on Feast of the Holy Family

Feast of the Holy Family – Homily of Bishop Kevin (Sallynoggin Church, Dublin)

31st December 2017

People rarely go anywhere these days without a camera, so family photographs are more easily shared than ever before. These photographs capture moments in time but they don’t always succeed in capturing the energy, the intimacy and the emotion that is part of the reality of family; the hopes and the fears; the love, the disappointment and the sacrifice. The family has many faces in society today and Pope Francis invites us, in fidelity to Christ’s teaching, “to look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows”.

One of the challenges that couples face when they marry is how they negotiate the different traditions and values that they received from their own families of origin, even at the most basic level. Families have different ways of dealing with food hygiene, with television and, of course, with the upbringing of children. If you grew up in a family where the lid is always put back on the toothpaste and the used socks are put in the laundry basket, it can be very challenging to find yourself sharing a home with someone who comes from a different kind of family. And these are only the smaller challenges of family….. ! People who love and respect one another eventually find ways of dealing constructively with these things and developing their own way of being family. There is no such thing as a perfect family.

But love helps us to grow towards perfection. Love is a gift from God rather than just a coincidence. It is a gift which, when we become aware of it, gives us the confidence to make commitments and to take risks for others. Pope Francis devotes an entire chapter of Amoris Laetitia to a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s hymn to love, which is so often used in the liturgy of marriage. As you will remember, love is “patient and kind, not boastful or jealous. Love forgives; it rejoices in the good of others; it is hope-filled and it never ends”. In the midst of all of the complexity of relationship that is modern society, the Church continues with confidence to propose a model of family life which reflects all of these characteristics and which is founded on the Sacrament of Marriage.

Each year, on the Sunday after Christmas, the Church invites us to pull back a little from the child in the stable and to allow ourselves to be inspired by these same characteristics as we find them in the Holy Family. The family of Nazareth was not without its challenges. Nobody wants to give birth in a stable; nobody wants to be a refugee on the run from a tyrant king. The scriptures invite us to look a bit deeper at the way in which they members of the Holy Family engaged with one another. As you probably know, the Sunday readings are in a three year cycle. In each of the three years, the Church invites us to reflect on some aspect of the love and commitment of Joseph and Mary, on their openness to the gift of life, on the way in which they cared for and provided for Jesus during his childhood and on the way in which he respected their role as parents.

This year, in particular, the Scripture readings invite us to enter into the spirit of reverence that Joseph and Mary had for their child as a gift from God. This same spirit of reverence is reflected in the story of Abraham and Sarah from the book of Genesis. They were quite old when Isaac was born and they saw his birth as the fulfilment of a promise made to them by God. As you may remember, and as St Paul reminds us, Abraham believed that God wanted him to offer his son Isaac in Sacrifice. This practice of child sacrifice would have been common enough among the other nations, but not among the Jews. You can imagine how Abraham struggled with this idea and yet something deep down inside made Him want to give up to God the one thing that was most valuable of all. As the Scripture tells us, God didn’t expect Abraham to make that sacrifice, but what was pleasing to God was the depth if Abraham’s faith. I ask you just to hold that thought for a moment.

In our Gospel this morning, Joseph and Mary, in keeping with the Jewish tradition, bring their child to be presented in the Temple. It is a symbolic ritual which is a way of celebrating the gift of life which has been entrusted to them and dedicating their child to the service of God. We are told that, after the presentation, Jesus returned with them to Nazareth, where the child grew to maturity and was filled with wisdom. I think we can be sure that, although Jesus is the eternal Son of God -the Word made Flesh – his human faith was formed and nourished by Mary and Joseph. It would have been from them that he learnt to pray according to the tradition of his people.

What can we learn from these two very different stories? It seems to me that what God wants to say to us in His Word today is that, one of the essential characteristics of family life is the sharing of faith. Children are helped by their parents not just to know about God, but to enter into the experience of a God who loves them. This happens in a number of ways. It happens first of all as children experience, through the love of their parents, the depth of God’s love for them. It also happens as parents teach their children about God, help them to pray, introduce them to the public worship if the Church and form them to “live like Jesus”. This can be challenging, because parents, being human, sometimes struggle with their own faith. It invites parents to think of their children as people who, like the parents themselves, are on a journey which has its ultimate fulfilment in relationship with God for all eternity. One of the greatest responsibilities of a parent – and it often requires a very real letting go – is to create the space in which their children can find the freedom to be whatever and whoever God has called them to be.

Let me finish with the words of Pope Francis in what I believe is one of the most beautiful passages in Amoris Laetitia.

  • The gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong protection and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life. By serenely contemplating the ultimate fulfilment of each human person, parents will be even more aware of the precious gift entrusted to them. For God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity. (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 166)

As we prepare to celebrate the World Meeting of Families in the coming year, I pray that this vision of family will be an inspiration and an encouragement to every family.